Sunday, February 12, 2017

Can You Autocross With a Family Wagon?

Wagons always get an unfair reputation for being the nation's favourite schoolrun-mobile -- images of an '83 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser, driven around by a family with three kids and a St. Bernard in the trunk doesn't exactly help shed that relative uncool-ness. Wagons just aren't sporty, and they sure aren't cool, people say. Over here, we have seen many people ditch the wagons in favor of the taller SUVs and crossovers for their bigger size.

For most of the world however, wagons are great alternatives for those who want to haul more things without needing to get a truck, but still retain the fun driving dynamics and fuel economy of a 4-door sedan. Don't believe me? Take a quick look on Google Streetview for streets of London and it will take you less than a minute to have the first wagon-sighting.

Case in point: in addition to the #SharkNoseDiary 6 series project car that I have, I regularly drive a slightly-scratched up 2007 Mazda 6 wagon as my reliable daily commuter. Fitted with a 3.0 V6 engine that produces 212 horsepower, the car (nicknamed Mazda Miyagi because why not) can propel itself from 0-60 at a respectable (in 2007 standards) 7.1 seconds.

My favorite thing about it though? It's mated to a 5-speed manual transmission. Combined with the zoom-zoom Mazda driving dynamics, I can go fast enough to quickly fall in trouble with the law while hauling my apartment in the trunk. You can't really do that with a modern SUV (unless you are willing to spend a lot of money for one of these).

The bottom line is: The car is a lot of fun, and it can do fun while hauling as much stuff as your neighbor's CR-V.

To prove my point, why not enter my car into an Autocross event?

For those who are unfamiliar, an Autocross is a legal, affordable, and fun motorsport event where car enthusiasts gather in an empty field / parking lot, craft out a course with traffic cones, and have people do timed laps in their cars. These courses are usually of a low-speed nature (you'd be lucky if you get past 40 on the track), and serves as a test for a car's handling and agility, as well as the driver's precision and smoothness.

Sounds like the perfect proving ground for me and my wagon, then.

Morning mechanical inspection.
I have been a car enthusiast my entire life, but I have never attended an autocross event before. Upon entering, you find yourself surrounded by a huge array of cars, from JDM Hondas, Nissan Skylines; hot hatches like the VW Golf GTi and Ford Focus STs; classic sports cars like the 1980s BMW 3-series and Mazda Miatas (they do extremely well in these events); to some more unconventional choices, like a Suzuki Swift and... a Nissan Leaf?

Yep. A Nissan Leaf. 
With the inclusion of my 2007 Familymobile, I think I am firmly planted in the last category. No matter -- I am not here to beat any records or embarrass people who drive cars much faster than mine. It seems that the average time for the course is mid-50 seconds. As a first-time autocross attendee, this target is probably a tad too tough for me. In that case, I'll settle for being under the one-minute mark.

This is also when I found out that I was grouped in the same performance class as a Nissan Sentra, and the aforementioned Nissan Leaf. Well then, as long as I am not the slowest in my class, I'd be happy with that too.

A SW20 MR2 that was famously reviewed by Matt Farah because of its V6 engine from a RAV4. 
As the day started, I was told that I would have the opportunity to have seven timed laps, which means I have 7 cracks at breaking under the one-minute mark.

To help my car go a little faster, I emptied the trunk, took out all the carpets, and removed the spare tire to shed some weight. I also hooked up my car with an extra Thinkware X550 Dash Cam with the rear view camera mounted on the side window (in addition to my Thinkware F750), for some extra shots of the interior.

Autocross 101: Learn to read these cones so you don't get lost around the track. 
My first outing was a bit of a disaster. Despite walking the course twice to familiarize myself with the layout, plus the hour of spectating time watching others have a go, I still managed to get lost and missed a corner. This resulted in a DNF -- Did Not Finish. Whoops.

I was determined not to make the same mistake again -- and thankfully, I never did. My first proper lap resulted in a 64.6 -- a full 4.6 seconds short of my target. Anyone familiar with motorsports will tell you that shaving a mere second off is a difficult task -- let alone 5 seconds.

This was the first time I properly tested the performance limits of my car. As expected, the Mazda 6 feels a little big on the track, and the power was adequate at best, but it redeems itself in the corners with nimble handling and a back that was surprisingly willing to step out to help narrowing the angle of attack. The steering is responsive and the car is wonderfully composed around the slalom courses, despite its size. Not bad for a 9-year-old car with almost 100,000 miles on the clock.

Nissan Skyline GT-R R32: Gran Turismo special. 
Still, if I want to shave 5 seconds off my lap, it will take more than my car to do that. My skills have to improve as well, which means being more smooth on my inputs to the car -- the gas, the brakes, and the steering.

Smoothness is key here, as any loss of traction will just result in understeer, tire squeal, and wheel spin -- three things that will not help my lap time. At the same time, I have to be pushing my car just enough that it hovers around the upper limit of its capabilities in order to get the most performance out of it.

An E92 BMW 3 series makes an appearance. 
My third lap results were back: 62.3 seconds -- 2.3 seconds faster. As I kept trying throughout, I did one second faster on my fourth lap, and another 0.6 seconds faster on my fifth lap, bringing the totals finally down to 60.7 seconds. At this point, I was confident that I would do under 60 seconds.

On my sixth lap, I went about as fast as I could possibly drive. I was careful to be smooth around the corners, and I aimed for the apex of each corner for the shortest time, and my foot was planted to the floor as I reached the finish line. The result? 60.2, a mere 0.5 second faster than my last lap. I am so close. 

"Gee, somebody missed their turn on their way to Crenshaw High."
With only one more lap to go, mild panic stepped in. Maybe this is a tall order after all. Maybe I am not good enough for this. Maybe it is a crazy idea to be bringing a family wagon to what's essentially a gun fight. Maybe, just maybe, I've brought humiliation upon myself and my father. Okay, maybe not. But you get my drift. 

With the world on my shoulders, I went out for one last run.

The first couple of corners went fine. I moderated the throttle to keep the engine within the power band through the corners, and gunned it as soon as I saw a straight line. The brakes and tires are still in good condition after the first six runs, so I had plenty of traction to exit the turns too. I went through the slalom with as little drama as possible while at the same time maintaining on the gas, and crossed the finish line at the 7,000rpm redline. The lap felt a little faster than the last one, but was it good enough to get under 60 seconds?

Photo courtesy: UBC Sports Car Club.
I glanced at the timing board on the side of the track, and it read: 58.988. 

The feeling of joy overwhelmed every fiber of my being. Not only did I get under the 60-second mark, but I have eclipsed my target goal by a second. 

When I looked at the leaderboard, my lap time was faster than some who turned up in RX-7s, STI's, Miata's, and a couple of BMWs. Overall, I was just outside of the bottom 15 in terms of the worst lap times of the day -- and I am perfectly happy with that. 

With the other two drivers in my class, I came out on top of the Nissan Sentra, and yet I was a full 2 seconds slower than the guy who showed up in a Nissan Leaf... I am not too sure how I feel about that. 

There are a lot of things I have learned from my first autocrossing experience. Chief among which, my driving skills can always improve despite me having ten years of driving experience spanning from California to Florida. Also, the Mazda 6 has more than proven itself as a deserving and competent entry in the autocross event. Who says that wagons can't be sporty? 

To sum up: Can you autocross in a family wagon? In short, yes. And you will have a ton of fun doing it. 

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